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It’s “show time” again in Springfield — Gov. Pat Quinn kicks off the new legislative session with the State of the State speech on Wednesday — and what a difference a couple of months can make.

The unexpected success of the fall veto session and the politics of an election year offer genuine hope for a productive 2014.

In December, lawmakers passed a major pension reform bill, and whether or not you like the details, the rating agencies are pleased, and the courts will have the last word on its constitutionality.

The General Assembly also legalized marriage equality, which settles a divisive social issue, at least for now.

Those giant steps were made possible by the sensible stewardship of the four legislative leaders who rounded up enough votes from their respective members.

So now it’s on to the new challenges of a new year.

On the fiscal side, that means: Paying the state’s bills on time, not a year late; really balancing the budget, not just pretending to; and determining the future of the massive 2011 income tax hike that expires at the end of December.

I’d like to offer another long-overdue reform that tops our new legislative agenda at the Better Government Association: “Smart Streamlining.”

Illinois is still weighed down by a public-sector “obesity epidemic,” and it starts with this figure — 7,000 — the number of stand-alone units of government in the state, all of them separate taxing bodies.

That’s 2,000 — or 40 percent — more than runners-up Texas and California, which have much larger populations, and Pennsylvania, which is about the same size as Illinois.

The poster child for our bureaucratic bloat is the 1,400 townships — antiquated relics from the horse-and-buggy era that offer, for the most part, services already being provided by adjacent municipalities and counties.

Illinois also has 900 school districts — more than 200 have only one school — along with 850 drainage districts, 800 fire protection districts, 300 park and 300 library districts.

Cook County has 542 governmental entities, more than any other U.S. county, and that includes five Downtown offices — assessor, treasurer, clerk, clerk of the circuit court and recorder of deeds — that mostly push paper around.

Add it all up and you have a multibillion-dollar enterprise replete with waste, inefficiency and duplication, and subsidized by us, the taxpayers.

It’s time to put Illinois on a serious diet by developing a smart, sensitive, multi-year streamlining plan for consolidating some units and eliminating others.

Lawmakers have talked about it for years and it’s now time for action, beginning with a clarion call from Quinn in his address on Wednesday.

It should be a no-brainer for a governor running for re-election, and legislators with their own campaigns to think about.

The BGA has a few other watchdog priorities, including:

  • Strengthening statements of economic interest, which are currently opaque documents, so they provide clear information on public officials’ sources of income and potential conflicts.
  • Protecting the Freedom of Information Act, our most important transparency tool, from efforts to increase filing costs and lengthen response times.
  • Closing the pension abuse loopholes that haven’t been addressed yet, including double dipping and various unjustified end-of-career “sweeteners.”

We’re encouraged that lawmakers joined us last year to add safeguards that should reduce the number of wrongful felony convictions, stop protecting police officers who consume alcohol before or during their shifts and start giving residents the power to abolish their townships.

Those are important reforms.

And we hope our legislative allies support this year’s BGA agenda, beginning with “smart streamlining.”

That would confirm that Springfield is indeed moving toward the better government we deserve.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

Image credit: Illinois capitol dome (CC BY-SA 3.0)